How to File a Civil Lawsuit
Although we would all like to avoid it, sometimes we are forced to get involved in the civil court system and file a lawsuit, regardless of whether or not we can afford a lawyer. In these situations, having a competent attorney by your side is always a good idea. But what happens when you can't afford to spend $10,000-$20,000 on an attorney?
With access to free legal services being woefully inadequate, many people have no choice but to represent themselves in civil court. Fortunately, this is not nearly as difficult as you may think. Once you understand the basic process and learn a few legal terms, you will see that the legal system is primarily based on simple common sense. Keep reading below to learn more about the basic steps to filing a lawsuit.
If you do need to file a lawsuit, we offer forms and guides for the following states:
Each package is a 100% digital download (no shipping required). They include state-specific instructions, form templates, and samples. It will allow you to file a professional civil complaint on par with anything drafted by an attorney.
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The Basic Steps to Filing a Lawsuit
1. Drafting the Complaint
In most states, filing a complaint is the first step to beginning a civil lawsuit. This is the document in which you lay out the allegations against the defendant and allege how you have been harmed. Keep in mind that you do not need to try and prove your allegations in the complaint. You are only alleging what happened. Of course, to ultimately prevail at trial, you will definitely need to offer evidence that supports the claims you initially make in your complaint.
However, simply alleging that you have been harmed is not quite enough. You must allege a type of harm that is specifically recognized as a recoverable claim for relief. For example, if you trip on the sidewalk you cannot necessarily sue the city for your damages. The plaintiff will need to allege that the city (or someone else) was negligent in some manner. Perhaps the sidewalk was in a poor state of disrepair. In that case, they can likely allege that the city had a duty to keep the sidewalks in good condition, they failed to perform that duty, and as a direct result of that failure, the plaintiff was injured. Each specific aspect of a claim for relief (sometimes called a ‘cause of action’) is known as an ‘element’ of a claim. If a Plaintiff can prove each element of their claim, they should win their case. Similarly, if a plaintiff has been physically attacked by someone, they can probably bring a civil lawsuit for battery if they can allege that the person physically contacted them and they suffered harm as a result of that physical contact.
The elements used above are general examples only! A plaintiff needs to research the individual elements of any and all claims they wish to bring against a defendant and make sure they properly allege facts that, if proven, will satisfy each element of their claim (the best place to research elements of specific claims is your local law library).
Some examples of common claims for relief are:
- Breach of Contract
- Unpaid Wages
- Wrongful Termination
- Race/Sex Discrimination
- Disability Discrimination
- Defamation (slander/libel)
Once the elements of a claim are known, they need to be written up in a complaint in the proper format. If your complaint is not formatted correctly, it may be rejected by the court clerk! The exact format varies from state to state, but usually includes the following:
- A 'Case Caption' with basic information about the case.
- A 'Statement of Jurisdiction', wherein you inform the court why this particular courthouse is the proper venue for your case.
- ‘Facts Alleged’, wherein the plaintiff alleges all the facts that constitute the elements of their claims.
- ‘Claims for Relief’ wherein the plaintiff states how the allegations, if proven, will constitute a legally cognizable claim (such as negligence, or battery).
- ‘Prayer for Relief’, wherein the plaintiff asks the court to award a specific remedy, such as economic or non-economic damages.
Step 2. Filing and Serving the Complaint
Once the complaint has been drafted in the proper style and format, the plaintiff will need to file it at the appropriate courthouse and pay the applicable filing fee. If a plaintiff has limited financial means, they may be able to qualify for a fee waiver/deferral and can ask the court clerk for a fee waiver application. Once the complaint has been filed, it will need to be served on the defendant in accordance with state law.
Step 3. Pretrial Motions
Occasionally, a defendant may want to file a motion to dismiss, a motion to strike, or another pretrial motion before filing an answer to the plaintiff's complaint.
For example, if the defendant feels the complaint fails to properly allege all the elements of a claim for relief, they can file a motion to dismiss the case, forcing the plaintiff to respond and inform that court why their case should be allowed to proceed.
Step 4. Filing an Answer to the Summons and Complaint
If the defendant does not file an early motion, they will need to respond to the allegations in the complaint. Once served, they will need to file an answer within the time indicated in the summons (usually around 30 days). If they ignore the summons, then the plaintiff will need to seek a default judgment from the court. If such a judgment is granted, the defendant will be forced to pay the plaintiff all of the damages they alleged in their complaint, regardless of whether or not they are accurate.
If an answer is filed, the defendant will either admit or deny the specific allegations made against them in the complaint. They will also lay out any valid affirmative defenses and counterclaims they may have against the plaintiff.
5. Engaging in the Discovery Process
Once served, the defendant will have a certain amount of time to respond by filing an ‘Answer’ to the complaint. After an answer has been filed, both sides will engage in ’Discovery’, where they are required to disclose information to each other. These disclosures are made by each party sending the other a 'Request for Production of Documents’ wherein they ask for specific documents that are relevant to the case. Our Civil Lawsuit Packages contain forms, samples, and instructions on how to send and respond to requests for production. Discovery often includes depositions of witnesses as well.
6. Presenting your Evidence in Court
After discovery is complete, a hearing or trial will be set and both sides will present their case to a judge, jury, or private arbitrator. This includes submitting exhibits and interviewing witnesses.
Once both sides are finished presenting their claims and defenses, the judge or jury will find in favor of one party or the other.
This is a general overview of how to file a lawsuit in state court. Of course, the specifics of any case can be a bit more complex, but if you understand these basic concepts, you will be able to represent yourself competently with our easy to use, state-specific guides.
They will show you how to file a lawsuit, send and respond to requests for production, introduce exhibits, offer objections, and interview witnesses at a hearing or trial. All without an attorney. Start your lawsuit today!